By Yuan Yanan
Ma Aye, a fourth-year zoology major in Myanmar, has a brother two years her junior. Their parents both died when the siblings were very young. She and her brother were brought up by their grandmothers. As their grandmothers have aged, the family’s financial strains have been mounting. Aye’s tuition is a major bill for the already-stretched family.
Fortunately, a year ago Aye received a student grant of 2,500 yuan (US$362.5) per year, which enabled her to complete her studies and acquire advanced language and computer skills so she could land an ideal job.
The China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation (CFPA) provided the financial aid to Aye. CFPA, the largest and most influential non-governmental charitable organization in China’s public welfare field, officially entered Myanmar in 2015 to become China’s first international civil organization to operate in the country.
Lin Yuan, director of the CFPA Myanmar Office, conducted field research in Myanmar in 2014 as a fresh college graduate. At the time, her main task was to register a resident office of the CFPA in Myanmar. Previously, most of CFPA’s international aid programs were either making donations to foreign countries from China or visiting a target country to donate. The move to seek a permanent resident office in Myanmar marked the international expansion of CFPA as it sought to become more suited for the national conditions of the destination country.
Lin Yuan and her colleagues started from scratch, which made their efforts even more nerve-wracking. They visited every relevant institution and organization in Myanmar. Lin majored in business administration at college and knew almost nothing about Myanmar. When reflecting on that period, she admits that as the one “who knew nothing,” she feared nothing.
In Myanmar, it is common to see staff of various non governmental organizations (NGOs) based in the U.S., Japan and Europe, which have been active in Myanmar for years.
“Myanmar officials thought China’s international aid was led by the government, so it was impossible for a civil organization to conduct an international aid program,” Lin Yuan recounted. Many local officials and residents didn’t understand why Lin and her colleagues came to Myanmar.
So, getting to know each other was the first step. Lin Yuan and her colleagues visited local communities to determine their real needs. Through frequent interactions with Myanmar residents and local employees, Lin started to grasp the uniqueness of Myanmar culture. She intended to arrange a tight daily schedule to carry out work quickly, but Lin realized that Myanmar people often adopt a sort of “happy-go-lucky” attitude towards life, so asking them to work overtime on weekends hardly worked out.
“They have very different styles and habits of doing things, so you have to understand local customs and respect the habits of local residents instead of thinking and doing things in your own way,” Lin Yuan said.
During their field research in Myanmar, Lin and her colleagues visited two universities with a manual they had made to test its feasibility. But they soon realized that the manual was not suitable for local living habits.
“Before the pilot university programs, we thought every Myanmar resident had a bank account and that we could transfer money to their bank cards,” Lin explained. “But this was not the case. For Myanmar people, applying for a bank card requires a complicated process. So, if went by the steps as written in the manual, it would have increased the burden on students instead of helping.” From the submission of students’ names to optimization of the interview process, the manual was revised again and again to meet the actual situation.
Lin Yuan and her colleagues officially launched the CFPA Myanmar Office in July 2015. Over the next three years, some 10 staffers from both China and Myanmar working in the office organized the pauk-phaw (lit. brotherly) scholarship project, an international volunteer program and the “Love Package” project, benefiting approximately 41,000 residents of eight states and divisions in Myanmar.
Ma Aye is a beneficiary of the pauk-phaw scholarship project which aims to provide financial aid and relative support to impoverished college students and prevent intergenerational transmission of poverty. So far, the program has spent a combined 5.17 million yuan (US$750,000) to support 1,300 college students.
The “Love Package” project is another heart-warming program involving handing out schoolbags containing brush boxes, lunch boxes and notebooks to local elementary school students. So far, some 40,000 schoolbags have been given to underprivileged children in Myanmar.
“The children’s facial expressions the moment they receive the schoolbags stunned me,” claimed Lin. According to the plan, a combined 200,000 “Love Packages” will be distributed to children in 11 countries including Myanmar in 2019.
In addition to field research in local communities, Lin Yuan and her colleagues have also maintained sound rapport with local governments to get to know their yearly development plans and areas in which the government was having a hard time improving local conditions. “Based on what we figured out, we started introducing resources and capital to places in need,” Lin said. “This is how our ‘clean drinking water plan’ was born.”
China’s poverty alleviation workers have performed practical jobs, which has helped win recognition from residents of Myanmar. Employees of the Ministry of Education in Myanmar call CFPA “pauk phaw.” When they see Lin Yuan and her team, they say: “Here come our pauk-phaw!”
When CFPA set up an International Development Department 10 years ago, China revised its domestic standards for poverty alleviation. In 2009, the State Council Leading Group Office of Poverty Alleviation and Development (SCLGOPAD) raised the poverty line to annual income of 1,067 yuan (US$154.7) per capita from 786 yuan (US$113.9) in 2007.
“Raising the standards for poverty alleviation evidenced that China has the ability to benefit more poor people and is a sign of improved national strength,” explained Fan Xiaojian, director of SCLGOPAD at the time. “Future poverty alleviation and development will go beyond solving the problems of food and clothing for the absolutely poverty stricken towards eliminating the root causes of poverty and enabling people to amass wealth.”
After years of rapid economic development, China’s poor population dropped sharply to about 36 million in 2009 from 250 million in 1978. Although eliminating poverty remains an arduous task for China, living standards have been increasing, and poverty alleviation is transforming from a “survival model” to a “developmental model”.
But Chinese perceptions didn’t keep up with the changes a decade ago. Many questioned the country’s international poverty alleviation programs: Considering the poor still living in China, why was the country donating money to foreign countries?
“In the face of such skepticism, it is very difficult for international poverty alleviation programs to move forward,” CFPA Deputy Secretary General Chen Hongtao admitted. “In those days, we lacked stable capital sources and our team turnover was also high, so international projects developed slowly.”
When so many employees of the International Development Department couldn’t see visible results of their efforts, they chose to move to other departments.
“By 2020, China will achieve its goal of eliminating worries about food and clothing and guaranteeing compulsory education, basic medical care and housing,” Chen asserted. “Furthermore, we will pursue better development. But now more than 800 million people around the globe are still suffering from starvation, and their most basic survival needs are still not guaranteed. In the past, when China was hit by disasters, many countries reached out helping hands. Now that China has seized better development, it should help other countries however it can.”
As China’s economy has continued to grow and the country has shouldered more responsibilities as a major country, many Chinese people have begun to accept providing foreign aid. Today, the capital funding CFPA’s international poverty alleviation programs primarily comes from private Chinese donations. CFPA cooperates with online public welfare platforms run by tech giants Alibaba and Tencent to raise funds from netizens.
For example, CFPA cooperates with Chinese online shopping website Taobao’s “Gongyi Baobei” program in which online sellers on Taobao commit a certain percentage of every sale to bedonated to either domestic or international poverty alleviation programs. So far, millions of online Taobao vendors have made donations, together contributing greatly to the poverty alleviation cause.
Caring hearts from China have fueled hope in the poor population in countries including Myanmar, Cambodia, Sudan, Uganda, Ethiopia and Nepal. People-to-people ties have made those from different countries mutually understand and support each other, creating enduring power for peace and development.